Why Barcelona are still not learning their lesson

Messi sad

Ousmane Dembele has just arrived at Barcelona for a “club record fee” of €105m plus add-ons which could take the total paid to around €140m, far eclipsing even the official updated €86m paid for Neymar that the club had to admit to two years afterwards (although the real cost may still be somewhat higher, and we may never know). Whether Dembele can emulate his predecessor in footballing terms is anyone’s guess; but more intriguing is the fact that he may emulate the superstar as a future exit – curiously, Barcelona seem not to have learned their lesson and set a buyout clause of only €400m.

€400m may seem a lot, but this summer has shown that numbers we could barely believe have a habit of becoming reality; if TV revenues increase, the figure will not seem excessive. But in any case, and more importantly, it is already not very high in the world of preventative buyout clauses. If any proof be needed that Real Madrid are better run than Barça at the moment, it can be seen in the buyout clauses currently in place. Not only is Dembele’s price, their newest signing, still way below the sums set by their arch-rivals, but so are all the rest of the squad – by some distance, too. Eight of Real’s stars have clauses higher than Lionel Messi, the best player in the world. Suarez and Busquets look at snip at just €200m.

Real Barca transfers

Source: Gab Marcotti via ESPNFC.com, updated for Asensio, Isco and Dembele

Why have Barça been so remiss and what explains this imbalance? Well first, to be fair, the Barça squad is just that much worse than Real’s. Other than the MSN, most of the others have passed their Pique (lol) and their clauses were signed in another era. Having said that, Cristiano Ronaldo’s €1bn clause was set as long ago as 2015, a full year before Neymar (Barcelona’s youngest and most marketable star) was set at only €200m rising to €250m over three years. Is it perhaps that Barcelona do not have the pull to get players to agree to prohibitive buyout numbers? Or is the board still arrogant enough to believe that players go to Barcelona for its “philosophy”? Either way, it is a failing of their fiduciary duties which would be prosecutable under UK company law.

Furthermore, Barcelona really have encountered a perfect storm. The inflation in this year’s transfer window has hit them just as an irreplaceable star has gone. To be clear, buyout clauses work very differently from normal transfer fees in terms of distorting the market. This is because a normal fee is, these days, usually paid out over a number of years; so that a transfer fee of €222m might only be about €55m per year. The rest of the market (though not the idiot fans) will “know” that the extra money available to the club who has just sold their star asset is only €55m at that point. But with a buyout, the money arrives instantly, meaning that the market is aware of both an entire €222m overhang, as well as the necessity to frantically spend most of it on a replacement. Furthermore, buyout clauses are by their very nature “supernormal”, higher than market valuations. This means that in turn they are causing inflation above normal market values when the money is spent in turn. In other words, it is not just usual “football inflation” (see my previous) but a buyout-driven super inflation. Barcelona this summer have become a footballing version of Mansa Musa I.

Of course in today’s world, only a few clubs are true “buyers”: Real Madrid, who do so from their own resources, and then PSG and Man City, who do not. Barcelona have ultimately been left on the heap as just another “selling club”, the dreadful epithet that even Man Utd had to understand when they lost Ronaldo to Real all those years ago. Barça just have not learned their lesson.

A squad of two halves – the drag from Tottenham’s wage structure

Tottenham NY Post

Frustrations are beginning to appear around my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. Obviously, we have yet to make any new signings, even as all around us in the top six have done so – including from us with Kyle Walker’s move to Man City. It is well known that we have a shortage of money compared with our rivals – the subject of a neat video produced by Joe Devine last year. But, there has also been much commentary about how Tottenham are struggling to find the right kind of players to fit into the squad – especially as “understudies” to key players like Harry Kane and Dele.

The reality is that Tottenham faces structural problems of its own making. First, the wage cap in place is enforcing a concept of a First XI vs secondary players. Most clubs have some sort of wage structure in place, of course, but rarely at the top level is such a fuss made about it or is it so well known. A look at the figures as last season commenced (below) demonstrate this clearly: Lloris and Kane were the top earners but the whole first team plateau out before a sudden drop off as one reaches Trippier and Davies (both now ironically effectively first team players).

Tottenham wages

Source: sillyseason.com (http://sillyseason.com/salary/tottenham-hotspur-players-salaries-69471/)

Compare this with the three biggest paying clubs in the Premier League and the contrast is stark. It is not just the absolute amounts that are different; it is the distribution, and with it an entire philosophy of creating star players with a large pool of players below them. A new arrival at Spurs would question how inelastic the first team appears to be; a new arrival at Man Utd may know he won’t oust Paul Pogba, but the rest is up for grabs. Tottenham have allowed themselves to create too rigid a playing structure.

This leads onto the second structural point: no other team has quite such a disparity between the quality of our First XI and the bench. Title winning teams do not have a set first team; asking “who is willing to sit on the bench?” is to ask the wrong question altogether. The real measure is the quality of the first team squad – the 18 or so players who should be interchangeable in quality terms. This is more difficult for the striker position, since there is only one match day position available. But for the attacking midfield positions, where we play at least two (in the 3-4-2-1 formation) or three (in the 4-2-3-1), we should have at least n + 2 players of comparable quality competing.

So what is the answer? Well, one or two rumours have emerged which are of real interest: Iheanacho from Man City for instance, or Kovacic from Real Madrid (incidentally Ross Barkley is not the answer). But it seems like under the financial constraints we have, and under the wage structure we enforce, Pochettino is going to have to further rely on coaching youth players. It’s not a bad way to do it – Josh Onomah has had an excellent summer with the England U-20s, as has Kyle Walker-Peters; Harry Winks and Cameron Carter-Vickers already made their appearances last season too. I also believe that some players can be reinvented – Moussa Sissoko into a deep-lying central midfielder for instance.

Ultimately though, Spurs are going to have to rejig the way they pay their team even if they do not raise the total amounts being spent, and even to keep existing squad members happy. The current system reflects something static, sacrificing flexibility on the altar of stability. It might serve for another season, but what happens when our ambitions expand?